- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

Millions of analog TV sets could be discarded before the digital TV transition next year as Americans upgrade to high-definition flat panels. Chances are most of them will end up in ditches in the developing world.

As new TVs and other gadgets hit the market, electronic debris has become one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world.

The problem: Electronic waste is toxic, containing heavy metals such as mercury and lead, as well as flame retardants that give off harmful fumes when burned.

These ingredients accumulate in living human tissue over time, so exposure to even small amounts can be dangerous. Poisoning from mercury and lead risks long-term health effects including brain damage, respiratory infections and birth defects, and dioxins from burning can disrupt hormone levels and damage the immune system, and may cause cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Electronic waste contains recoverable raw materials but in quantities so small that most manufacturers aren’t interested in the tedious process of salvaging them. Exporters, on the other hand, can turn a profit by moving large volumes of computers, TVs, videocassette recorders and other electronic waste to poor countries, where low-paid workers dismantle them under hazardous conditions.

“We’re allowing the developing countries to manufacture these products, we get to use them during their least toxic phase, and then we send them back to the developing countries for one of those most toxic phases,” said Sarah Westervelt, of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network.

Her group and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition are using the digital TV transition to highlight the challenge of electronic waste. On Feb. 17, U.S. broadcasters must switch from analog signals to digital. Consumers who have digital TVs or subscribe to cable or satellite services won’t be affected, but an estimated 13.5 million households with over-the-air analog service will have three choices: subscribe to cable or satellite, purchase a digital tuner, or buy a new TV.

Those who unload their old TVs will add to a rapidly growing waste stream. The U.S. generated as much as 2.2 million tons of electronic waste in 2005, according to EPA estimates. Of that amount, at least 1.9 million tons was discarded in landfills and 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled.

Only about 10 percent of electronic waste in the U.S. is recycled, according to the TakeBack Coalition. Almost all of the electronic waste collected for recycling, however, ends up in scrap yards in developing countries with even worse conditions. The exact amount is difficult to quantify because the EPA does not require export volumes to be reported, but EPA statistics show that more than 80 percent of electronic waste containing cathode ray tubes (CRTs), including old TVs and computer monitors, is sent overseas.

Ms. Westervelt’s group has tracked electronic waste to scrap yards in Guiyu, China, and Lagos, Nigeria, where laborers paid as little as $1.50 a day work in unsafe conditions to recover raw materials.

“Workers would be squatting on the ground, with no protective equipment, essentially pulling from the devices what they could turn around and sell to make a bit of money, frequently using toxic techniques,” she said of a scrap yard in China. “For example, for the cathode-ray-tube devices, all they wanted was to grab the copper yoke or copper wire at the back of monitors and TVs, and then they would throw the lead glass into irrigation ditches. … What we found more disturbing is that women and children were heating up circuit boards over these little charcoal woks with a pool of molten lead solder, which, of course, is giving off all kinds of lead fumes.”

Current law permits the export of electronic waste because the U.S. has not ratified the Basel Convention — an international treaty requiring exporting countries to notify developing nations of hazardous waste imports. As for landfills, no federal prohibition is in place for consumers and businesses whose electronic waste does not meet a certain threshold.

The popularity of recycling electronics — at least TVs — is growing, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Consumers recycled 13.8 million televisions last year, up from 10.8 million in 2005, according to a CEA survey.

The Basel Action Network and the TakeBack Coalition have called on manufacturers to recycle consumers’ analog sets at no cost to the consumer, akin to producer responsibility laws in Europe and other developed countries, where many of the same manufacturers operating in the U.S. have recycling programs. In the United States, Sony Corp. is the only TV producer that recycles its old products voluntarily, at no charge, in a partnership with Waste Management.

“We are essentially providing an environmental warranty for all of our products,” Sony spokesman Doug Smith said. Mr. Smith said the program, rolled out in September, has 100 sites where consumers can take their products to be recycled.

Several TV manufacturers without such programs, including Samsung, LG Electronics, Sharp and Philips, did not respond to requests for comment.

Most major computer companies have some sort of recycling program: Dell Inc., Apple Corp., Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP, Toshiba America Inc., Gateway Inc., Asustek Computer Inc., Lenovo Inc., ViewSonic Corp., Acer Inc. and NEC Corp. Only Dell’s program is at no cost to the consumer.

The CEA has a Web site (MyGreenElectronics.org) that allows users to locate recycling sites according to ZIP code and device type.

“The consumer electronics industry is stepping up and doing its part to make sure that we provide the resources necessary to consumers to recycle their old electronics if they choose to do so,” CEA spokesman Jason Oxman said.

Activists are demanding federal laws requiring manufacturers to recycle their products, as nine states have enacted.

“The only way to get manufacturers to start caring about the waste problems associated with their products is holding them financially responsible for those end-of-life costs,” Ms. Westervelt said. “Then they’re going to have a direct financial incentive to redesign the products so that they have less toxins in them, last longer and so they are more recyclable.”

Without such legislation, she said, some findings might sway consumers to recycle their electronic waste. The Basel Action Network traced lead solder from circuit board extractions performed along a river bank in China to the river itself, where lead levels in the water were 2,500 times higher than World Health Organization limits. Researchers later discovered toxic materials in jewelry and other Chinese imports as a result of polluted water, she said.

“If nothing else, maybe the fact we’re getting our own toxic waste back will motivate some people to say we have a problem here,” she said.

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